Tongue cancer is a form of cancer that begins in the cells of the tongue.

Several types of cancer can affect the tongue, but tongue cancer most often begins in the thin, flat squamous cells that line the surface of the tongue. The type of cells involved in your tongue cancer helps determine your prognosis and treatment.

Where your tongue cancer occurs also affects your treatment. Tongue cancer can occur:

  • In the mouth, where it may be more likely to be seen and felt (oral tongue cancer). This type of tongue cancer tends to be diagnosed when the cancer is small and more easily removed through surgery.
  • In the throat, at the base of the tongue, where tongue cancer may develop with few signs and symptoms (hypopharyngeal tongue cancer). Base of tongue cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the tumor is larger and the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes in the neck.

    Increasingly, base of tongue cancers are associated with human papillomavirus (HPV), which has a profound effect on the prognosis and treatment of the cancer.

Treatment for tongue cancer typically involves surgery to remove the cancer. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted drug therapy may also be recommended.

Treatment for advanced tongue cancers can impact your ability to speak and eat. Working with a skilled rehabilitation team can help you cope with changes that result from tongue cancer treatment.

  • Collaboration. At Mayo Clinic, ear, nose and throat specialists (otorhinolaryngologists) work with radiation oncologists, oncologists, pathologists and radiologists as a multidisciplinary team that provides whole-person care for people with tongue cancer. Other professionals are included as needed.
  • Experience. Mayo Clinic doctors have extensive experience caring for people with tongue cancer. More than 600 people with tongue cancer receive care at Mayo Clinic each year.

    Your care team is prepared with the knowledge and resources to provide you with exactly the care you need.

  • Access to the latest. Mayo Clinic doctors have access to the latest tongue cancer treatment options. Examples include transoral robotic surgery, intensity-modulated radiation therapy and 3-D conformal radiation therapy.
  • Innovative approach to treatment. Mayo Clinic doctors are studying new treatment protocols for people with HPV-associated tongue cancers that reduce the amount of treatment given and lower the risk of treatment side effects, without sacrificing cure rates.
  • A full range of treatment options to consider. Mayo Clinic doctors will work with you to review all of your treatment options and choose the treatment that best suits your needs and goals. The range of treatments offered to people with tongue cancer includes surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and clinical trials.
  • Comprehensive cancer center. Mayo Clinic Cancer Center meets strict standards for a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, which recognizes scientific excellence and a multidisciplinary approach to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., are ranked among the Best Hospitals for cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla, is ranked high performing for cancer by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic also ranks among the Best Children's Hospitals for cancer.

At Mayo Clinic, we assemble a team of specialists who take the time to listen and thoroughly understand your health issues and concerns. We tailor the care you receive to your personal health care needs. You can trust our specialists to collaborate and offer you the best possible outcomes, safety and service.

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit medical institution that reinvests all earnings into improving medical practice, research and education. We're constantly involved in innovation and medical research, finding solutions to improve your care and quality of life. Your doctor or someone on your medical team is likely involved in research related to your condition.

Our patients tell us that the quality of their interactions, our attention to detail and the efficiency of their visits mean health care — and trusted answers — like they've never experienced.

Why Choose Mayo Clinic

What Sets Mayo Clinic Apart

Your options for tongue cancer treatment depend on the type of tongue cancer you have, its location and its stage. Your treatment team also considers your preferences and works to create a personalized plan that's most effective for your particular situation.

Tongue cancer treatments have the potential to impact your speaking and swallowing, so your care team strategically plans treatments that will allow you to maintain as much function as possible.

Surgery

Mayo Clinic head and neck surgeons have extensive experience treating tongue cancer. Surgeons often partner with pathologists, who analyze tissue during surgery to make sure all of the cancer has been removed.

Approaches used during tongue cancer surgery may include:

  • Transoral surgery. At Mayo Clinic, surgeons remove most tongue cancer through the mouth (transoral surgery). To remove the cancer, doctors may use cutting tools or lasers during surgery.
  • Transoral robotic surgery. Head and neck surgeons offer transoral robotic surgery, which provides more-precise access to base of tongue cancers. Typically this surgery is safe and effective and enables faster recovery times compared with standard surgical approaches.
  • Open surgery. In certain cases, such as with large cancers or cancers that have spread in the neck, surgeons may use an approach that uses a large incision in the neck to remove the cancer.
  • Sentinel node biopsy. In order to determine whether cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, your surgeon may recommend a sentinel node biopsy.

    During this procedure, a blue dye or radioactive tracer is injected near the cancer site. The doctor follows the path of the tracer to the first lymph node (sentinel node). This node is removed and tested for cancer.

    If the sentinel node doesn't contain cancer, it's unlikely that other lymph nodes contain cancer. If the sentinel node is cancerous, the surgeon may remove other lymph nodes in the neck for testing.

  • Reconstructive surgery. People with advanced tumors who experience face, jaw or neck disfigurement after tumor removal may need reconstructive surgery. Head and neck surgeons work with surgeons in plastic and reconstructive surgery to restore the appearance of the face, jaw or neck and use of the mouth. Experts in oral and face (maxillofacial) surgery also may be involved.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be an option for early or advanced tongue cancer.

Mayo Clinic radiation oncologists have access to the most advanced radiation therapy treatments, such as intensity-modulated radiation therapy, which precisely targets radiation to tumor cells and limits radiation exposure to nearby normal tissue, and brachytherapy, which places radioactive material close to the tumor site.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used along with radiation therapy to treat locally advanced tongue cancer. For tongue cancer that has recurred or has spread to other areas of the body, chemotherapy may be recommended to slow the growth of the cancer.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy drugs, such as monoclonal antibodies, alter specific aspects of cancer cells that fuel their growth. These drugs can interrupt the spread and growth of specific tongue cancer cells. Targeted therapy is often used in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Rehabilitation

Some people need help to improve their swallowing and speech function during and after tongue cancer treatment. At Mayo Clinic, you have access to a variety of experts to help you cope and recover, including specialists in speech and swallowing, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and dietitians.

If cancer or treatment makes it difficult for you to eat enough to get all the nutrients you need, your doctor may recommend tube feeding (enteral nutrition).

The Nicotine Dependence Center at Mayo Clinic can help people who want to stop using tobacco. Continuing to use tobacco increases your risk of a tongue cancer recurrence.

Mayo Clinic works with hundreds of insurance companies and is an in-network provider for millions of people. In most cases, Mayo Clinic doesn't require a physician referral. Some insurers require referrals or may have additional requirements for certain medical care. All appointments are prioritized on the basis of medical need.

At Mayo Clinic, ear, nose and throat specialists (otorhinolaryngologists) form a multidisciplinary team with specialists in radiation oncology, oncology, plastic and reconstructive surgery, and rehabilitation therapies in order to provide whole-person care for people with tongue cancer.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 800-446-2279 (toll-free) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic, ear, nose and throat specialists (otorhinolaryngologists) form a multidisciplinary team with specialists in radiation oncology, oncology, plastic and reconstructive surgery, and rehabilitation therapies in order to provide whole-person care for people with tongue cancer.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 904-953-0853 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic, ear, nose and throat specialists (otorhinolaryngologists) form a multidisciplinary team with specialists in radiation oncology, oncology, oral and maxillofacial surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, and rehabilitation therapies in order to provide whole-person care for people with tongue cancer.

Other experts are included, as needed.

If you want to successfully stop using tobacco, you can get expert help through the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 507-538-3270 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

See information on patient services at the three Mayo Clinic locations, including transportation options and lodging.

Mayo Clinic doctors and scientists are dedicated to developing new treatment options for people with tongue cancer. Learn more about head and neck surgery research.

Areas of investigation include:

  • Improving and adapting existing robotic surgery systems for use on tumors of the tongue
  • Investigating tumor growth factors for oral cancer
  • Evaluating new methods of use for chemotherapy
  • Evaluating new radiation therapy regimens
  • Investigating the relationship between HPV and head and neck cancers
  • Researching potential gene therapies

Cancer research is conducted in coordination with the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. The Mayo Clinic Cancer Center receives funding from the National Cancer Institute and is designated as a comprehensive cancer center — recognition for an institution's scientific excellence and multidisciplinary resources focused on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

See a list of publications by Mayo Clinic authors on tongue cancer on PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine.

Dec. 20, 2014